Charles Ives, Orchestral Set No. 2

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Forged from Fire, performed on May 30, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 20, 1874, in Danbury, CT
Died May 19, 1954, in New York City
Composed from 1909 to 1915
Premiered on February 11, 1967, in Chicago
Approximate performance time: 16 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 French horns, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, glockenspiel, bass drum, cymbals, light gong, chimes, heavy gong, triangle), 1 harpsichord (scored for zither), 1 accordion, 2 Theremins, 2 pianos, 1 organ, 1 harp, 26 violins, 10 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, and chorus

Born one year after Reger, Charles Ives was every bit as American as his contemporary was German. And he was even more fond of quoting traditional melodies, as American folk songs, march and hymn tunes are constant points of reference in his works. Yet there is a great difference: Ives treated his traditional materials with a certain detachment, somewhat in the manner of a collage, unlike Reger, who never put his chorales in any kind of quotation marks. Ives scholar Thomas Brodhead has suggested that Ives’s approach has something ‟surrealistic” about it in that ‟common, familiar objects are painted extremely realistically in bizarre or improbable combinations or in strange contexts.”

Distinct from his symphonies, Ives’s ‟orchestral sets” are programmatic triptychs, slightly analogous to Debussy’s orchestral Images. The first orchestral set is better known as Three Places in New England. The second set, unpublished and unperformed during Ives’s lifetime, was not heard until 1967 (when Morton Gould conducted it with the Chicago Symphony) and not printed until the 1990s. (A third orchestral set was sketched but not completed by Ives, and was eventually reconstructed by David G. Porter and Nors Josephson).

Like many of Ives’s works, the Second Orchestral Set had a long and complicated genesis. The three movements were written as separate pieces in 1909, 1911, and 1915, respectively; only later did Ives decide to unite them under a single title. The second movement also shares material with such earlier works as the Ragtime Dances, the First Piano Sonata, and the Set for Theatre Orchestra.

The brief first movement (‟An Elegy to Our Forefathers”) places isolated fragments from a number of traditional songs within an eerie, multi-layered orchestral texture. (In his score, Ives included a zither, a rare guest in a symphony orchestra.) The second (‟The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting”) is a rambunctious scherzo in the form of a ragtime that is a true collage of hymn fragments, boldly transformed and distorted. Brodhead emphasized the singular metamorphosis that turned a couple of revival hymns into a ragtime.

The third movement (‟From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose”) commemorates the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by the German Navy on May 7, 1915, where 1,200 civilians perished. (This tragedy played a role in the United States’ eventual entry into the war.) In his Memos (personal jottings collected and published posthumously), Ives related how, the day of the disaster, he was waiting for the ‟L” train at Hanover Square when a barrel-organ player began to play:

Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune, and others began to sing or hum the refrain. A workman with a shovel over his shoulder came on the platform and joined in the chorus, and the next man, a Wall Street banker with white spats and a cane, joined in it, and finally it seemed to me that everybody was singing this tune, and they didn’t seem to be singing for fun, but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long. There was a feeling of dignity all through this. The hand-organ man seemed to sense this and wheeled the organ nearer the platform and kept it up fortissimo (and the chorus sounded out as though every man in New York must be joining in it). Then the first train came and everybody crowded in, and the song eventually died out, but the effect on the crowd still showed. Almost nobody talked—the people acted as though they might be coming out of a church service. In going uptown, occasionally little groups would start singing or humming the tune.

Now what was the tune? It wasn’t a Broadway hit, it wasn’t a musical comedy air, it wasn’t a waltz tune or a dance tune or an opera tune or a classical tune, or a tune that all of them probably knew. It was (only) the refrain of an old Gospel Hymn that had stirred many people of past generations. It was nothing but—‟In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” It wasn’t a tune written to be sold, or written by a professor of music—but by a man who was but giving out an experience.

This third movement is based on this, fundamentally, and comes from that “L” station. It has secondary themes and rhythms, but widely related, and its general makeup would reflect the sense of many people living, working, and occasionally going through the same deep experience, together…

In this movement, Ives calls for a separate ensemble of unison chorus, horn, chimes, piano, harp, and strings, physically removed from the main orchestra and playing in a different meter. The chorus intones the Te Deum in English, and the distant ensemble provides what Brodhead interprets as ‟background noise of New York rush-hour traffic.” The main orchestra then enters with ‟In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” getting gradually louder and louder until the hymn is intoned in a full tutti—only to thin out immediately as a lone accordion is left to finish the melody. Finally, all that remains is the distant ensemble with their rush-hour traffic noises.

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.